Day 2: The cove within

There’s a cove in Vietnam. It is hidden by cliffs so high that they blend in with the sky.

One rock graciously lifts its feet up just high enough so homo sapiens can slide underneath and experience the world within.

There are no existing cultural images with which to relate this experience. There is no beginning nor end. As the guide rows your overfilled canoe into the cove, you pass others who are coming out — and they grin at you, as if to say, “You people are about to experience something magical.”

I imagined I living there. I could fish for food, gulp water from the spring. I could build a house on the shoreline, make a fire to keep warm.

When storms thrash the Pacific, the cove would protect me.

When the sun bakes the sand, the cove would protect me.

But quickly thereafter, in this wonderful place, the thought occurred that I would have to leave and there would be a good chance that I don’t return. Quickly thereafter — much like when I stepped into the spiritual mist of Victoria Falls — I thought about how much of life isn’t a free and peaceful existence that encourages you to explore its depths. I looked at our tour guide, who was sweating and wheezing and clearly dissatisfied, and I thought how even in a place as beautiful as this, the toxic mixture of culture and survival beats us down into a salty pulp akin to our guide’s sweat.

It was a terrible thing to think in the moment. After all, if we can’t enjoy the moments of glory, then what moments give us respite?

I thought of every memory in which I was paralyzed with anxiety as the world around me cheered and laughed and celebrated. I thought of every time I spent the night grinding my teeth, or working on one tiny problem the entire day, only to realize the insignificance of the task.

I have many joyous moments in life, but often the thought that occupies my mind is how the moment will end. It is a terrible attitude to have, but it’s hard to think otherwise when we spend most of our waking hours working. We spend most of it away from our families and friends. We spend little of it sitting on a porch, and rocking back and forth on a comfy chair — and it isn’t because I don’t have a porch or a rocking chair.

This week I read several stories that mapped out where in the universe we exist. In several of these stories, there was a big “you are here” sign that pointed out the little tiny speck where we likely exist. As I read these stories, often at work, I thought about how insignificant my current task was. It was neither necessary for survival, nor necessary for exploration. In a world so big, with a view so small, you would think more of mankind would be dedicated to looking outward.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with how we spend our lives. Much of it is spent figuring out how we can be valuable to other human beings — because that’s what seems to generate money and fame and popularity — that there is no value put on exploration. When we see a beautiful cove in Vietnam, we think about how we can charge to show this to people. When we see a pretty tree on the street, we think about how we can share it on Instagram.

I’ve been looking for an idea for a children’s book, and I keep on circling around to the message that exploration is more important than production — that experimentation is more important than solutions.

I’m of that age that enough of my peers regret following their dreams in college, because they were undesirable to employers after graduation. They now give the advice that high schoolers should go to school for something practical — something that the market values. It’s the kind of advice I would’ve expected from my parents, who are about the most practical people alive. But when I told them as a kid I wanted to be an artist, and later a writer, they didn’t blink an eye. They said do what you love, because that’s what is most important. For many year after graduating at perhaps the worst time — at the bottom of the recession — I thought that was poor advice. But now I’m starting to think that following one’s desires in college isn’t the mistake; rather, it’s that, once we lose the structure of school to allow us to explore the part of the world with which we are fascinated, we give up trying. We stop looking there, because the world has told us we aren’t good at this — that other people are looking there, and that you shouldn’t bother. And maybe that’s why my parents never scolded me for making a mess while doing crafts, or pulling apart electronics to see how they worked, or doing science experiments that ended up giving me an electric shock.

Maybe for some of us, the glory of places like the Halong Bay cove and Victoria Falls are their ability to remind us that the world before our eyes is merely one tiny slice of the world in which we live. When I’m looking at the wall in front of my uncomfortable desk and my 30-year-old chair, it’s hard to imagine the world any bigger. But the memory of these places is somewhere in my mind.

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